Magnificent Metal, Beautiful Bronze

DRUM! Spends A Day At Zildjian

Zildjian

It’s a beautiful spring morning and i’m driving down through Boston’s South Shore to the town of Norwell, Massachusetts. It’s the home of the fabled Zildjian Cymbal Company, where all Zildjian cymbals are conceived and produced. Zildjian headquarters is some of the most hallowed ground in the drum world, being the place where the Zildjian family still practices the same secret alchemy they’ve employed since Avedis Zildjian started producing his mystical bronze cymbals for the Ottoman court in Constantinople almost 400 years ago. On the way down to Norwell I pass by the Norfolk Downs section of North Quincy — the site of the first American home to the cymbal company and where Avedis Zildjian III, a direct descendant of his namesake, Avedis I, built the foundation for one of the most successful businesses in the musical instrument industry.

The Quincy location started operations in 1929 at the very beginning of the Great Depression. Back then the building consisted of what a local newspaper described as a “rambling series of sheds,” a low-key industrial building that gave no hint of the business giant it was to become in the next 30 years. Despite starting his business at the dawn of the greatest economic hardship the U.S. had ever seen, Zildjian began to flourish by the late 1930s, having adapted their product to answer the demands of big band drummers for thinner cymbals, rather than the heavy orchestra and band cymbals the company had produced in Constantinople. Over the years product development has driven the cymbal business, and Zildjian has been at the vanguard of that movement. Zildjian was also one of the first companies to court and consult endorsing artists, and their artist and clinic program has been a model for the rest of the industry to follow.

We’ve all seen the sepia-toned photos of the likes of Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, and Buddy Rich posing outside the Norfolk Downs office, proudly holding one of Mr. Zildjian’s magic disks. The Zildjians cultivated great personal friendships with their artists and in turn the company still enjoys great product loyalty to this day.

By the early 1970s the company had outgrown the Quincy factory and was relocated to its current site in Norwell, to a brand new building designed to accommodate the need for both sufficient office space and ample production facilities. Zildjian headquarters has twice expanded on the location since then, but for all the changes in the modern musical instrument business, the process of making fine cymbals has remained relatively unchanged.

Marketing communications coordinator Jason LaChapelle, who will give me a rare behind-the-scenes look at the Zildjian cymbal making process, meets me at the front desk. We walk through the spacious lobby of the headquarters, past drum sets donated by the likes of Elvin Jones, Joey Kramer, and Travis Barker. There’s even a replica of Ringo’s Black Oyster Pearl Ludwigs to remind employees and visitors of the huge impact the Beatles made on the company’s fortunes.

Walking through a long hallway to the production section of the sprawling Zildjian complex, we pass the drummers lounge, where visiting endorsers come to check out cymbals from Zildjian’s sizable vault, in which all cymbals are aged and stored awaiting shipment around the world. A drum set stands on a carpeted riser in the middle of the lounge surrounded by a seemingly endless array of cymbals ringing the room. It’s here that some of the biggest names in the drum world come to try out new sounds and choose new cymbals for their sonic palette. On rare occasions, drummers are allowed to play and comment on a top-secret new prototype cymbal or a possible expansion of an existing line.

Entering the production area through a large swinging door we head straight for the melt room or foundry, where ingots of copper, tin, and silver are melted together to create the secret alloy that is the bedrock of the Zildjian legacy. There is a flashing red light outside the impressive steel doors of the room. “That means the mix is going on,” says LaChapelle. “I’ve never seen it and I never will.” He explains that only a small handful of people sworn to secrecy are allowed into this inner sanctum for the mixing of the metals. Anybody with access to a foundry can make bronze from 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin, but it is behind these locked doors we now stand in front of where ancient alchemical secrets produce a remarkable bronze alloy that can withstand the tempering, rolling, hammering, lathing, and eventual crashing and riding the Zildjian castings will soon endure.

A few years back while doing research for a book on the company’s history, I was allowed into the melt room by permission of the late Armand Zildjian, to photograph the secret alloy being poured into the casting bowls. It was a thrilling experience and I thought myself to be quite the lucky witness to history, until I was told that, although I had indeed seen molten metal being poured, the castings were useless as cymbal bronze because one or more steps had been omitted due to the presence of an “outsider.”

Whatever the secret is, the resulting castings, which resemble fieldstones or large round paperweights, give no hint of the wondrous sounds they will impart in just a matter of hours.

After the castings cool, they are sorted by weight into different bins. The weight of the castings determines the size of the final cymbal. I’m surprised to learn that all Zildjian cast cymbals, be they Constantinople Thin Rides or a Z Custom Rock Crashes, are fashioned from this one type of bronze ingot — the difference, LaChapelle says, is what happens further down the line. “A big part of it is not only the secret alloy, but knowing what to do with it once the casting is made.”

We round a corner into a large noisy workspace where the first major steps in creating a finished cymbal from the lifeless castings occurs. Different thicknesses of the castings are being slowly carried through a large rotary hearth (or oven) on a conveyor. The rotary oven, one of the many innovations Armand Zildjian helped to create, wouldn’t look out of place at a large modern pizzeria. The temperature inside the oven reaches about 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, but the two-man teams who feed the hot plates through heavy rolling mills and back into the oven don’t seem to mind the heat. I’m assured that the factory is well air conditioned in the summer. Peering into the oven’s opening I see the castings glowing bright orange in the intense heat. “Every cymbal that goes in there gets heated for the same amount of time,” explains LaChapelle, “compared to the old days, with the old pizza-style ovens, where the first one in was the last one out.”

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A casting will travel through the oven from four to 12 times, depending on the size and thickness of the final cymbal. After each trip, the crude cymbal will be gradually flattened in the rolling mill. The mill looks dangerous enough to me: the red hot cymbal castings must be taken off the belt and then fed by a short rake between two strong rollers (which could easily pulverize an arm), and carefully caught on the other side only to be put back on the conveyor and be heated up again by the hearth. “As the discs are rolled again and again, a dense interlocking weave is formed in the granular structure that prevents warping and weak spots,” says LaChapelle. Once the required thickness and size is achieved, the center is marked with chalk where the hole will be drilled.

A water bath tempers the hot metal and makes it malleable enough to shape the casting into what will eventually resemble a cymbal. The tempering bath was an important enough step that Aram Zildjian, who brought the secret process from Turkey to his nephew Avedis III, insisted that the American factory use saltwater (in this case from Boston Harbor) just as the Istanbul factory did.

Chief cymbal designer Paul Francis says there was a practical reason why the factory was close to the ocean: “The water was free!” he laughs. “You need cold water, but it doesn’t have to have salt in it. The metal changes instantaneously once it hits the water. It’s called ’quenching’ the metal. Because we have 20 percent tin, we are going from a very brittle state, and we are trying to achieve a ductile state so we can do all our ’cold’ work on the cymbal.”

Zildjian

After the metal has been quenched and is no longer brittle, the hole is drilled and a heavy stamping machine presses the cup. With the center and diameter of the cymbal determined, a craftsman can now shear the jagged and uneven edges off the blank disc. Over the last few steps the once unrecognizable piece of bronze begins to take on the shape and profile (but not the finish) of a cymbal.

The more time I spent in the noisy production area, the more I became impressed by how much of the cymbal making process is still labor intensive, requiring hands-on involvement of highly skilled craftsmen each step of the way. Although innovations like the rotary hearth oven have enabled Zildjian to improve quality and keep up with the tremendous demand for their product, there’s not one part of the operation that doesn’t require an accomplished craftsman. Rolling the blanks through the mill involves more than just feeding the machine — the roller must have a skilled eye and keen judgment to insure an even and consistent batch of cymbals. The center hole is not just drilled at any arbitrary point, and the cup must be pressed perfectly to meet the specifications for each type of cymbal.

“The main spec is a weight parameter, depending on what cymbal it is going to be,” LaChapelle points out. “Every single model we make, from a 6" splash to a 24" ride has a specific weight tolerance within a certain amount of grams. Then there is the visual inspection. We take a look after each stage, making sure everything was done properly — if a mistake was made you’d be able to see it. These guys all know the quality control standards here — we have team leaders who lead each process and inspect each cymbal. And everyone is empowered to halt the process if they see a mistake. It’s really a team effort.”

So while Zildjian has updated operations that were once done in smoky sheds with dirt floors, the quality of the instruments the company makes is still dependent on the judgment and experience of seasoned professionals, some of whom have been at Zildjian for more than 40 years. In other words, Zildjian has refined its production process, but the quality of their final product is much more consistent, and by all accounts better, than it was when only a few workers toiled in the Norfolk Downs shed.

Zildjian

The next stage of the operation requires a craftsman to first backbend the cymbal by hand on a jig before it is placed in a shaping press where 80 to 100 tons of pressure will come down and give the cymbal its shape and profile.

“The cymbal is very malleable at this point,” says LaChapelle, “and you can really work the metal. In the old days this is where the hammering would start, but because of the new methods we have, we can press an initial shape that the cymbal will eventually take.” Because every cymbal and every size has a different shape, there are different stamp dies used for each model.

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Once the cymbal is pressed into a basic shape it’s ready for the hammering machine, which I’m told is quite impressive. I’m also told in no uncertain terms that I can’t see it at work, because this one-of-a-kind proprietary hammering machine plays a major role in creating the mystical “Zildjian sound.” I can tell you that unique (and costly) “chucks” with raised hammer patterns are used in the state-of-the-art, computer-controlled machine. I’m also told that the machine brings a previously unheard of consistency to each model family of cymbals.

“Basically the human hand is not strong enough or consistent enough to make the cymbals the way we feel they should be made,” says LaChapelle. “Some cymbals go through a very quick hammering process, and some go through an over-hammering stage. Obviously Constantinoples are very different from A Zildjians and they require very different hammering techniques.”

Over the years, Francis, who apprenticed under Armand Zildjian, has become familiar with every step of the cymbal making process. “An A-line cymbal gets hammered just once,” he points out, “a K Custom Dark Crash will get hammered several times in different stages of its creation, which helps dry out the sound. Constantinoples get hammered quite a bit. Depending on what we’re trying to achieve, that’s how much work goes into the cymbal. It’s all about the end result.”

Zildjian

After being hammered, the cymbals are taken to lathing machines to be turned. Each cymbal is secured vertically on the lathe and as it spins, the lathe operator leans his weight against a large cutting knife and begins to cut sound or tonal grooves into the cymbal. One craftsman will do a rough pass on a cymbal and another will do a finish pass. “Finish lathe operators have more time on the job,” explains Francis. “They’re more skilled so we can ensure the cymbal comes down to its final weight and thickness. It’s one of the most critical parts of cymbal making — you can make the cymbal come out right, or you can just ruin everything everyone did before you.”

Although lathing looks like great fun to me, it also rates as one of the most complex and critical stages in the process — one little slip or sneeze and it’s back to the melt room for the ruined cymbal. While I watched these guys deftly shear off large curls of bronze with little effort, I began to understand why there are small but discernible differences between cymbals that are the same size and type. This is where the human touch comes particularly into play, because no matter how consistent a lathe operator is, there will always be minute differences in the way he cuts a groove.

“The sound grooves help define the sound of the cymbal,” LaChapelle points out. “Just the slightest variation in lathing will create a different sound. We want each cymbal to have its own character. Unless you were doing it robotically, it would be virtually impossible to lathe two 12" splash cymbals exactly the same way. These guys have all been here awhile and have apprenticed to do this job. It’s almost like an art form and you have to be very skilled to do it correctly.”

Francis is at one of the lathes, cutting grooves on a prototype K Custom Hybrid Ride, which he recently developed with endorser Akira Jimbo. The new design looks like a combination of a K Custom and a K Zildjian Ride, with the outer half of the cymbal having strong tonal grooves while the inside has a smooth lathing. Once Francis has developed a new cymbal and determined the specifications, he’ll train everyone involved, step-by-step, in the exact process from start to finish. “I make the prototypes every step of the way,” he explains, “so that any problem that might arise won’t come up when we put it into production. Each step of the process is as important as any other. It’s like a cake recipe: if you change one of the steps or do it incorrectly it throws everything off.

“And there’s no automated assembly line here. There must be 65 and 70 people between a couple of shifts. Every single person touches every single cymbal in some way, shape, or form.”

Before the cymbals leave the main production room, the edges are made as smooth as possible. Some models are buffed and finished on the way to the quality control area where longtime employee Leon Chiappini personally oversees the testing of each and every cymbal made by the company. Chiappini has been with Zildjian for over 40 years, and chances are, if you own a Zildjian cymbal, he played it before you. Chiappini certainly merits an article of his own, but today he’s out of the factory on a rare day off, so I poke around the small room noticing the “tester” cymbals, which LaChapelle says represent a range of what the cymbal is supposed to sound like. “Leon goes through the cymbals one at a time. He hits them a few times and makes sure they fall in line with the tester cymbal.”

Once Chiappini signs off on the cymbals, they need to be sprayed with a protective coating and then taken to a laser etcher to engrave a unique serial number and have the logo printed onto the cymbal. The finished cymbals are then wheeled to the legendary Zildjian cymbal vault to rest and age and await shipping. The vault is any drummer’s dream-come-true with literally tens of thousands of cymbals lining the aisles — shiny reminders of the Zildjian legacy.

The company has no plans of letting up, and if some of the prototype cymbals I saw being tested are any indication, we’re in for some exciting new sounds in the near future. Francis explains just how quickly Zildjian can come up with a new cymbal idea and immediately get it into production. “We can have an idea this morning, and if the line is open, I can make prototypes right now, on the fly,” he says excitedly. “That’s the beauty of this job — I don’t have to go out and build molds like I would if I was making toothbrushes. Our process is so unique that I can use existing tooling that we’ve had for years and manipulate the metal a billion different ways to make different sounds. That’s pretty exciting.”